When we think about what most characterizes a Christian, it should be love. And yet, far too often, Christians are associated in the public imagination with being legalistic, judgmental, and even hateful.
Something has gone badly wrong.
And it isn’t just that somehow Christians have been misunderstood. It is that what some Christians have been saying and doing doesn’t actually look much like love.
Oh, they will use the word “love.” They will say that it is “loving” to have standards, to not allow others to sin, to speak the truth. But far too often, that ends up putting “truth” at the center of the faith. And truth, while important, is not at the center of our faith.
Far too often I have heard Christians somehow contrast concepts like “love” and “truth,” or “judgment” and “grace,” as though they were on opposite sides of a continuum, and our task was to figure out how to balance them. In my understanding of faith, this is simply wrong. Love is not the opposite of any other concept when it comes to our faith; it is the very center of our faith itself. God is love.
Law and truth and judgement are not the opposite of love, but they are subsidiary to love; we are to come at them through love. It is easy to read the Bible selectively so that our own prejudices and cultural attitudes seem to be supported by what we read. But if it were really that easy to clearly understand “right” and “wrong” from the Bible, then humankind would not have been arguing about it for thousands of years.
When I ask myself what my faith is certain of, the list is very short.
I am certain that there is a God.
I am certain that God is love.
I am certain that the greatest way I can live my one, short, confused, wild and precious life is to do what Jesus said—love God and love others.
I suspect, or think, or believe a lot of other things. But I am just as certain that I am often wrong.
Over the years, I have learned to practice a habit I call “the hermeneutic of love.” A hermeneutic is a way of reading, and we use one every time we read, whether we are literally reading a book, or “reading” a cultural moment, a situation, or even a person. When I read the Bible, or when I “read” things and people around me, I try to consciously do so through the hermeneutic of love. When I place love at the center of everything–my life, my understanding, my actions, my beliefs–I am placing God at the center of those things. Over time, this has changed everything about how I understand the world.
I am only human, so I will make mistakes. But when I err, as I inevitably will, I want to always err on the side of love.